What Is the Difference Between a Polyglot and a Multilingual Person?
Is a polyglot, by any other name, a multilingual person?
To find out, you will have to venture beyond the dictionary’s objectivity, beyond the parallel origins of the two words, and to the heart of motivation to understand what makes a polyglot a polyglot, and not only a multilingual person.
But once we do, will you agree?
First, Let’s Go By The Book
According to The Oxford Dictionary, the two words look interchangeable, except “polyglot” can be either a noun or an adjective, whereas multilingual is only an adjective:
- Multilingual (adj): in or using several languages
- Polyglot (adj): knowing or using several languages
- Polyglot (noun): a person who knows and is able to use several languages
Miriam Webster also does not distinguish “polyglot” from “multilingual”:
1: of, having, or expressed in several languages
2: using or able to use several languages especially with equal fluency
Polyglot (noun): 1: one who is polyglot
Polyglot (adj): 1a: speaking or writing several languages
The dictionary is not going to answer this one for us!
How Many Tongues Do You Have?
Let’s chase polyglot and multilingual down to their language origins and etymology roots.
As explained in Unravel Magazine, “polyglot” comes from Greek, and is the older of the two terms, having first appeared in the dictionary in 1650. When you break down the compound word, “polyglot” means “many tongues.”
Conversely “multilingual” came from Latin, and appeared almost 200 years later in 1838 in the Oxford English dictionary. However, this compound word also means “many tongues.”
Note: both “glot” and “lingual” mean “speaking, reading or writing a language.”
Using “multi” as a prefix began to emerge in the 19th century, eventually gaining popularity in the common lexicon in the 20th century. Today, we easily refer to each other as multitaskers, objects as multipurpose, issues as multifaceted, and events as multicultural.
Now back to our multifaceted issue!
In our quest to understand what is a polyglot, let’s go with the notion of equating tongues to the number of languages spoken.
If you have one tongue, you are monolingual—40% of the world population fits here!
If you have two tongues, you are bilingual, and usually you have a strong lead tongue. This is the majority of people—43% of us are in this group!
Note: Some would say if you have more than one language, you have already achieved multilingual status, but we are being hyper-technical here!
If you have three tongues, you are trilingual – 13% of the world population.
How Many Tongues Does It Take to Be a Polyglot?
It’s getting VIP at this level—only 3% of the world population speaks more than four languages.
But if you are highly proficient in five or more languages, then you have begun to ascend into polyglot territory. Less than 1% of the world population are polyglots.
To add another technicality of numbers, some would consider that a polyglot refers to an individual who has fluent mastery in six or more languages.
If you come from countries such as Switzerland (German, Italian, French, Romansh, English) or Morocco (Arabic, French, Spanish, Moroccan, English), where there has been more foreign and colonial influence and the native language has a diversity of vocabulary sourced from other languages, your chances of being bent towards multilingualism and falling into the VIP class of tongue-wielders is even greater!
The quantitative mark of a polyglot is being able to speak five (or six) or more languages with proficiency and ease.
But What is a Polyglot, Really?
Some people share the opinion that “multilingual” is just a way to describe a polyglot and a “polyglot” is simply a multilingual person. Basically, they are indeed interchangeable and it’s all much ado about nothing with this polyglot hype.
But somewhere between definition and connotation is a difference that simply cannot be counted. This is where the polyglots come into their own.
Yes, a multilingual person speaks several languages—but for many, speaking several languages alone does not yet a polyglot make!
Becoming Multilingual is Often Extrinsically Motivated…
Some argue that people become multilingual due to how they were raised, circumstantial exposure, and practical needs. In fact, most people in the world speak more than one language for these reasons.
Perhaps multilingual people grew up speaking multiple languages. Perhaps their society or parents did so. They grew up in a country and with a language that facilitated learning different languages. Maybe they acquired a new language for education and work opportunities. Or they acquired language for some other outcome.
In each of these cases, the extrinsic motivation was the catalyst to speaking several languages—often practical or based on necessity, with language as a tool for communication. These multilingual individuals have the skill of four or more languages, with varying levels of proficiency in each.
But a Polyglot is Intrinsically Motivated!
For polyglots, the number of tongues they possess is an outcome of the conscious choice of learning languages as a genuine labor of love.
It’s how an individual comes into a profound breadth of language that distinguishes the polyglot.
If you will, consider language as both a leisure activity and objective itself, apart from its function as a communication tool.
“Being multilingual is a question of fate, of birth, or at most of parental choice. An individual human being cannot decide to grow up multilingual on his or her own,” says polyglot Alexander Arguelles. “In contrast, becoming a polyglot is a question of choice. Becoming a polyglot requires lots of hard work and an almost obsessive passion for learning languages. It is rarely, if ever, accidental, but rather the result of conscious effort.”
Being a polyglot is associated with being fascinated with languages. Polyglots have the attitude of loving language, and learning for fun or out of pure intellectual curiosity, cultural intrigue and obsession with language itself.
Polyglots can apply their fluency across multiple languages to practical endeavors or income-earning, but their mastery of languages exists as its own thing, for the sake of itself.
They learn language to learn language, not because of what it can do for them! Their language learning is intentional but not inherently practical.
You can be multilingual based on your capacity with languages. But do you identify with being a polyglot based on your passion for them?
So, Is a Polyglot a Genius?
The mystique of the polyglot also often includes having some kind of play by ear inherent genius quality when it comes to language learning.
Learning a new language is no doubt an enjoyable hobby for a polyglot and one they are quite adept at, which tempts them into picking up more and more languages.
Polyglot Arguelles admits an obsession with language and having studied close to 90 of them! Now it’s fair enough to say that’s a serious knack for language that not every single person is going to possess, or ever be able to take that far!
But does that mean being a polyglot is inaccessible to others? No! In fact, busting through the hype is a factor in the debate.
In a blog post in Psychology Today, bilingual Francois Grosjean Ph.D. writes, “But by differentiating between ‘regular’ multilinguals and polyglots—extraordinary learners with unique abilities—the polyglot hype trivializes the complexity of the language learning process, obscures the amount of time and effort necessary to master a language, detracts from the normativity of multilingualism in many places around the world, and reinforces the very monolingual norms it purports to challenge.”
Instead, research on “polyglottery” has shown that “normal learners” can attain successful, sustainable language learning habits by emulating polyglots with practices such as intensive study time, discipline and systemic study patterns.
So when you think “polyglot”, consider someone who has a fascination with language and is dedicated to picking up language and memorization hacks, more so than an unattainable, effortless genius who learns by pure osmosis.
Or Perhaps, Is a Polyglot a Linguist?
Above we’ve distinguished a polyglot from a multilingual person because the polyglot consciously learns the languages for the pure love or obsession with language.
Now, we have to get even more specific about what it means to love language.
The polyglot is in love with learning and speaking different languages. But for the polyglot, it’s more about the whole of the language and being able to speak a collection of them.
Within the language realm, the polyglot seeks to become a jack of many trades.
The linguist, however, expertly focuses on dissecting and understanding the science of language itself, even when they are not fluent in that many languages. They dig deep into the roots of, the syntax of, the nature of, the parts of, the logic of, the rules for and the structure of language.
The linguist is a master in understanding the anatomical nature of language itself—how it works—but this has nothing to do with how many languages the linguist speaks.
Some linguists are polyglots. Some polyglots are also linguists. But they’re not the same and not necessarily correlated to each other!
Do Many Tongues Come With Many Personalities?
Another thing to consider is that the more tongues you can switch between, the more often you may access different aspects of your personality!
Foreign language speakers often take on traits of the associated cultural personality of the language when speaking in a foreign tongue!
The language a person is speaking, and the cultural attributes associated with that language for that person, influences what personality traits a person exudes more of when speaking that language.
For example, native Chinese students are more assertive, extraverted, helpful, and open to novel experience when conversing in English. Spanish-English bilinguals score higher in extraversion, agreeableness and conscientiousness when taking a personality test in English.
The speculation is that the language you are speaking in, and the cultural values you attach to it, have an impact on priming your behavior or expression in a way that momentarily aligns your identity more closely with those values when expressing in that language than when expressing in another language.
Basically, the fluency of the polyglot can even amplify the fluidity of personality we all possess.
Famous Polyglots In History
Some of history’s major personalities have been polyglots at heart!
Queen Elizabeth I of England was said to have been fluent in six languages by the age of eleven—speaking English, Greek, Latin, Spanish, Welsh and French.
Engineering genius Nikola Tesla was a world-traveling polyglot, with three languages also under his belt by the time he was ten.
Vietnamese revolutionary Ho Chi Minh was a polyglot who continued his studies while in exile.
Author J.R.R. Tolkien was fluent in so many ancient and modern languages (including Spanish) that he soon began to combine them and create his own Elvish languages for his literary masterpieces, such as Lord of The Rings.
And though we might debate if she were a multilingual woman or a polyglot, Breakfast at Tiffany’s Audrey Hepburn spoke six languages fluently—English, Dutch, French, Spanish, Germany, and Italian.
In Conclusion: What is a Polyglot?
If you want to make it about numbers, then being a polyglot is about speaking at least five or six languages with fluency and ease.
But if we get beyond the numbers, it’s love, passion, and the conscious intention to learn languages that distinguishes a polyglot from a multilingual person.
One way or another, a whole lot of learning goes into the journey of improving your linguistic acumen.
Do you have another opinion on the difference between being multilingual and a polyglot? Leave a comment and let us know!
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